Tag Archives: BNB

Rewriting my Napoleonic rules part 1 – scope

The Prussians drive the French back into a rather Mediterranean-looking Plancenoit in my trial game

After a spate of painting this spring and early summer, my energies turned to rule-writing. It proved a much longer and harder road than I expected. But the end result might be very close to my final “Dining Table Napoleon” product. Or it might yet collapse into a heap of broken pieces. I want to take this opportunity explore the choices I had to make and the solutions I have come up with.

But first: what is the game for? As the blurb on my blog suggests, I want to fight big Napoleonic battles. Wagram and Leipzig might be a stretch, but a medium-sized encounter of 30,000-50,000 a side should count as a relatively small game, and a Waterloo (with about 70,000 a side plus 40,000 Prussians) should be quite possible to handle with two players (plus one for the Prussians) on a moderately-sized table. I want to use my 15-18mm figures (while catering for smaller ones) and I also want rules that will be quite easy to pick up and play for occasional players. I want to recreate the ebb and flow of a Napoleonic battle reasonably faithfully, so that game outcomes are historically plausible, and historical outcomes within the bounds of the game’s possibilities. But the game needs to evolve reasonably quickly, with a turn representing about an hour of action.

If that sounds straightforward, we are left with the puzzle of why so few games systems take this on. Only one mainstream system that I know of does: Sam Mustafa’s Blücher. This is a clever system with a lot of interesting features. I played three games with it at the club with my French and Prussians, and the experience was decidedly unsatisfactory. Why? A lot of it was visual. In order to make it fit the table sizes I wanted meant having two bases to a unit, giving 12 infantry figures and four cavalry. This didn’t look right, for reasons that I find hard to pin down – but my fellow club members thought so too. Too few men to a unit? It would have looked better with 10mm or 6mm figures (or bigger bases and a fuller ground scale). Certainly that was true of the cavalry. I also didn’t like uniformity of the unit sizes in this context (as opposed to a smaller game). Other aspects of the rules failed to float my boat too. The rules on built-up areas felt entirely wrong – they became fortresses against which attacking units were dashed in vain, rather than stages for gory and confused fighting that was costly to both sides with frequent changes of fortune. Leaders are not generally represented, and neither is the divisional level of organisation – all for very good games-design reasons, but which spoiled the historical narrative for me. The rules did not handle the Prussians very well. They are a pretty boring army in terms of classic gaming features (elite units, heavy cavalry and so on), while their flexible battlefield organisation, where the battalions from different regiments were mixed up in task groups, did not lend itself to a system where the basic unit is a regiment or small brigade.

So I let Blücher go. In fact I thought that brigade-sized units were not the route to go. This is really the minimum-sized unit for big battle games, unless you have big tables and many players. This is the reason why so few rule systems don’t fit the scope I am looking for. For many players, representing battalions is the essence of Napoleonic wargaming, with classic decisions about line, column and square. I have even read some rather implausible arguments that numbers of battalions determined the effective size and capability of armies more than numbers of men (in fact generals of the time tended to measure army and corps strengths in 1,000s rather than battalions). But even if you reduce battalions to a relatively vestigial role (such as in the very interesting Et Sans Resultât rules) you find you find that a single player can’t control more than a corps. If you want to play with battalions, that is fair enough – but it annoys me when any such battalion-based system claims that it is for big battles, which is often the case. Smaller battles (20,000 or less per side) were quite rare historically, so you are left with refighting a corner of a bigger battle. Or fictional encounters between two corps or reinforced divisions – which, to be fair, can make fun game. With the modern preference for games between smaller forces chosen from army lists, it is not surprising that most Napoloenic rules are based on battalions.

Old school wargamers in the 1970s simply fudged things by scaling down, with each battalion representing a brigade or division, and the table being scaled to fit the battle. But in due course proper brigade-based games were created. I investigated three systems in particular. The first was Volley and Bayonet by Frank Chadwick and Greg Novak, published in 1994. In this system units were represented by square (or sometimes oblong) bases with a standard 3in frontage. The system covered the whole era from the Seven Years War to the Franco-Prussian War. I never played it. The table sizes required for 3in bases was large, and at the time I had few gaming opportunities. But the stripped down nature of the system was inspiring. They also published a very useful scenario book for the 1809 campaign. Next came Age of Eagles. This is based on the ACW Fire and Fury system, a revolutionary set of rules published in the 1990s. Age of Eagles is based on deep historical knowledge, but it is not a stripped down system. The units might be brigades, but they are made up of multiple bases, and perform battalion-like evolutions. I played them once (a recreation of Quatre Bras), but let it go after that. In my view it ia player per corps game – and if you are going down that route I would prefer the vestigial battalions route of ESR. And thirdly there was Sam Mustafa’s Grande Armée and its fast-play derivative. Sam is for my money the best games designer out there, and it showed with this system. Like V+B, its units were brigade represented by squares. The system was based on 3in squares (which gave me a space problem) but I followed the recommended option of 2in squares with special rulers marked in 2/3 inches. This was the system I settled on for many years, using the fast play version with house rules. But a number of features were unsatisfactory, both from a visual point of view, and as a historical representation. Sam moved on and the system gradually became ossified.

This brings me to the 2010s and where I started this blog. I wanted to write my own system. I was focusing on a project to refight Vitoria on its bicentenary. This was definitely a brigade-based battle, and so I keep the brigade-based system using 30-minute moves. These rules are quite clever and innovative (they used playing cards in place of most dice), and they are published on this blog. But Vitoria took all day with four players, though my fellow players were very kind about the rules. Incidentally we did not use my miniatures for this, but my friends 6mm GA bases. This left me the conclusion that I must move forwards to division-based games and one-hour turns.

Divisional-based games do produce headaches, especially for Peninsular War battles, as my Sorauren game showed. But I did have an interesting place to start: Chris Pringle’s Bloody Big Battles. This is not a mainstream commercial system like Blücher with well-produced booklets and player-aids. But it is very well designed and comes with a host of big battle scenarios. The system is based on Fire and Fury, again – but unlike AoE it is properly stripped down. But the big problem is that it is primarily designed for the Franco-Prussian War, and then extended to other campaigns of that era. Small arms ranges were much greater in relation to move distances. But quite a few people used them for Napoleonic games, and so I started out on that path. What worked especially well for me was the way units are built – on variable numbers of bases, based on unit size. I found that this got me much closer to the look I sought than the standard brigade blocks – though trying to use 15mm figures on such a reduced distance scale (1in to 150m) is always going to be a visual challenge.

By this time my journey is well-documented on this blog. At last I was getting regular games as a club member – and the system proved suitable for that. But it was slow going by historical standards, and the cavalry rules did not have the Napoleonic feel. The latter was mainly dealt with when I rewrote them into Big Napoleonic Battles V0, published here, which became our settled rules for club games. But then lockdown hit and I moved away from the club. This year I started to think hard about how to rewrite the rules to address their less satisfactory aspects – notably that a game turn packed less than an hour of action, and so games were going on for too long.

But in a phenomenon that will be very familiar to rules writers, what started as a few tweaks turned into a full-on rewrite and rebalance. To be continued.

Albuera 1811: refight for BNB

Another week , another outing for my Big Napoleonic Battles rules at the club. This time I wanted to try something historical. I had already worked out a scenario for the epic Pensinsular battle of Albuera in 1811, so I dusted it down. Unfortunately I brought the wrong box of French, so the French army looked very scrappy, including some ancient Minifigs Old Guard and Union ACW troops in skirmish order. So no pictures.

The scenario was quite stylised. I am avoiding close adherence to the historical terrain and orders of battle. This makes the games quicker to set up and play. The terrain is simplified to essentials, and the units mostly of standard size. However the overall number of bases was close to historical for each side. Apart from the French infantry (using my usual four bases) the unit sizes were smaller than I have used for 1815: three bases. The figure ratio was set at 1,000 infantry per base, less than the 1,250 I am using for 1815, but this reflects the toll the Peninsula took on grand tactical formations. Each of the two British divisions were represented by two units (allowing the Portuguese to be separated in Cole’s division). There was one four-base Spanish unit: Zayas’s division. Not too much distortion was needed with these unit sizes. The French got an extra unit, attributed to the reserves. Alten’s KGL light infantry was merged with Collins’s independent Portuguese brigade.

All the British and French infantry was classed as Veteran, including the KGL/Portuguese unit, and the British (but not the merged unit) were also classed as Aggressive. The two Portuguese units and Zayas were classed as Trained. The other Spanish units were Raw and Fragile, along with the Spanish and Portuguese cavalry. The British cavalry unit was Trained and Aggressive. The French light cavalry units were classed as Veteran, with one (the Polish lancers and 2nd Hussars) also as Aggressive. The two French dragoon units were classed as Trained – the French dragoon arm seems to have had problems in 1811/12 in the Pensinsula. To mimic the command problems on the Allied side, they were given no generals, and the Spanish were additionally classed as Passive. The French had two generals.

As with the original battle the French pushed most of their infantry into a left flank attack, with the lead unit feinting on Albuera village in the centre. Unlike the day the main French attack the Allies had more time to respond, notwithstanding command issues, so the flank was not fully turned, and all the cavalry was thrown into the attack in the centre. This succeeded drawing in British infantry to the centre, where the French held their own, though the sight of two French cavalry units scrapping for the village jarred a bit (the village wasn’t treated as a dense built-up area, so cavalry could operate in it). The Spanish were left holding off the main French onslaught, but were helped by cavalry superiority. By the time we called it a day, the Spanish were holding on, though the fight had lasted only two moves: a longer battle would have been uglier for the Spanish. The French had started to relocate some of their cavalry from the centre to counter the Allied cavalry superiority.

So how did the rules do? Such historical refights need to be judged on three aspects. Scenario design, player performance and the rules themselves. The scenario had one major weakness: it allowed the Allies to react to the French battle plan at least one move earlier than they did historically. Their ability to react needs to be constrained. Also I think Coles’s division is available too early. I was playing closer attention to the French, and their their use of generals and the veteran status meant that the army didn’t suffer too much friction in the early stages. The Allies suffered more, but I’m not sure if it was enough to reflect the historical situation. Perhaps they should all be Passive (with maybe a British general to compensate). I am broadly happy with the troop classifications: if the Spanish were too effective that is a rules problem, as they had nearly the lowest grade possible. On terrain I think it was broadly OK except I don’t think the hills on the Allied side were right, and could do with another look – but the restraint is using club terrain, which does not allow relief to be represented exactly right. I think some way of showing a watershed on the table might be worth considering.

And the players? You can bring a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. If wargamers behave unhistorically on the tabletop there nothing much that rules and scenarios can do about it except nudge them in the right direction. The first unhistorical thing was the way the French threw their cavalry into the centre, leaving the left unsupported against three Allied cavalry units. This followed the way I split the commands, giving both the advance guard and the cavalry to one player, and the rest of the infantry to the other. Each player then focused on their own personal battle rather than the battle as a whole. Historically the French had a strong overall commander, Marshal Soult, and this strong unified command showed in a coherent battle plan. A second issue was that the French threw all their infantry in at once on the left, leaving no reserve. Soult left a substantial reserve which he threw in at the critical point once the initial attack got bogged down. This is a classic wargames issue, exacerbated by the fact it was an evening game with a maximum of five moves. The Allies were no better. A further wargamer issue is that the players are much more aggressive with cavalry than historically. On the Allied side this meant moving units far out to each flank in the hope of taking the attacking units in the rear. This isn’t historical, though the natural response – for the attacker to cover flanks with cavalry certainly is historical, and this would be an effective way of neutralising the tactic. I have noticed the very aggressive cavalry before and I’m not sure what, if anything, to do about it.

And the rules themselves? In terms of the broad sweep my chief concern is that battles don’t evolve quickly enough: each turn is meant to represent an hour, and the battle seems to develop more slowly. In this case I don’t think it was because the players were hesitant. There are two possible culprits: slow movement and combat mechanisms. The move distances are already uncomfortably long for the simplest moves, especially where roads are involved. Of course terrain and command friction can slow things down a lot, but that wasn’t the issue in this game. The big infantry battles perhaps take too many moves to resolve. But given that they are already very dice-heavy you need to resolve in several rounds to the dice a chance to balance out. In an earlier incarnation I added to the losses on both sides in close combats – that might be worth looking at again, so that units are worn down faster (allowing multiple combat rounds may be the best way of doing this). The jury remains out. It is hard to draw out where the rules are at fault rather than the scenarios or players. A key learning from Chris Pringle (author of Bloody Big Battles) is not to rush in to fiddle with the rules to fix every problem.

There are some lesser points that I will add to my list of ongoing issues and modifications. The cavalry had it too easy in the village – and indeed I worry a bit about the way “open villages” work. I think they need to be disadvantaged in this type of terrain (and open woods too). Also what happens when two cavalry units hit an infantry unit? Simultaneous combat , as the rules imply, or sequential, which I think makes more sense? The second unit would benefit form disruption in the infantry (+2), but it will be in square (-2). A more radical thought on combat is to make all multiple attacks sequential – this might help make combats more decisive, but creates problems if units are of different sizes (three and six bases for example). That’s much too radical for now, of course.

Life away from the hobby is going through a busy patch, so I will have limited opportunity to develop further scenarios. But I’m keen to get going. Something that helps is that I have bought some lovely British infantry from another club member, which means that doing Pensinsula scenarios is a more realistic proposition. It is much easier to use Prussians as a stand-in for Portuguese and Spanish rather than British redcoats.

Big Napoleonic Battles – prototype rules published

Our latest game reaches its climax.

Since my last report we have played two more short games at the club with my new rules, Big Napoleonic Battles (loosely based on Bloody Big Battles). They have settled down enough for me to publish them on the Rules page of this website in pdf.

These rules are a working prototype, which I am calling V0. They should be all you need to play, but there are no pictures or diagrams, and very few examples. While these rules will never be published in the mainstream way, with lots of eye-candy and glossy paper, I might aspire to something with more explanation and perhaps even some scenarios. The model here is again Bloody Big Battles, though I can’t see that I will ever get the rules actually printed and sold for money.

Instead of updating these rules as I think of changes, which I have done a couple of times already, I propose to publish a separate sheet of updates and clarifications, which I can update regularly. That will make things easier for people who have printed the current version, as some of my club colleagues have. These will be consolidated into V1 in due course. At that point I will attempt examples and diagrams.

These rules are by no means perfect, but they give a good club game. My fellow gamers like them – something I take as a considerable complement: we often let go of rules that we find don’t quite work. That has happened with Fistful of TOWs, Battlefront, Rapid Fire and Iron Cross for WW2/Modern, and Altar of Freedom ACW. My next project indeed will be to develop something for my WW2 models! Foe us the rules have to play quickly in a multi-player format, and conform to some degree with how they expect wargames to work.

How realistic are they? I get fed up with claims made by rules promoters that are both simple to pick up and realistic, when they obviously have not been tested against historical reality. The original BBB has been extensively used for historical refights, though typically for battles later in the 19th Century, so it has a fair claim to realism. I can’t yet make the same claim for BNB, as the sort of quick scenarios we can do on club night are rarely historical. I might try out an Albuera game next week, though.

What I can say, as I said last time, there is high variability based on dice throws, making outcomes very unpredictable. I don’t think that is unrealistic, given the vast number of factors that have been abstracted away, but it will irritate some players just as it entertains others.

Do try them out and let me know how you get on!

Big Napoleonic Battles – nearly there!

Our club game on Monday night

A couple of weeks ago I reported I had taken the radical step of creating a set of standalone Napoleonic rules, based on our house rules for Bloody Big Battles. For the time being I have christened these rules as Big Napoleonic Battles, until I can think of something better. At our club game this week we used the next iteration of these rules. And the verdict from my club colleagues is that they are nearly there. After the next series of tweaks I will post a copy here.

The scenario was one I put together in a hurry, and wasn’t helped by being caught in a horrendous traffic jam on the South Circular on the way. With five players (including one brand new one), each with two or three units plus artillery, we completed five moves, which was the limit I placed on the scenario. I am understanding how to design games that can be completed comfortably on a club evening, where we are limited to two and a half hours. The multiplayer aspect doesn’t speed things up as much as it might, since there is still a tendency for players on the same side to wait for each other. It also helped that I limited unit size to four bases. I hope that can I increase to four units per player, so that we can get bigger games, but the five move limit feels right. It is meant to represent 5 hours of real time, which in 1815 was the length of both Ligny and Quatre Bras – as well as the Prussian involvement in Waterloo.

Now that I have a game that my colleagues like, I am going to put my Napoleonic rule-writing on hold. Doubtless I will want to make small tweaks to BNB, or write some special rules to cover particular situations, such as strongholds (i.e. farmhouses, churches, etc turned into defensive structures). Perhaps extra rules on generals would add appeal. But my more ambitious thoughts on a new turn and movement mechanism will wait. I will switch my rule-writing to another era: WW2 probably.

The scenario had two Prussian corps, each one regular infantry, one landwehr and one cavalry unit and two artillery bases, defending a town, in a position with flanks anchored by a river and village on one side and a dense wood on the other. Attacking them where two French corps, each with two infantry units and two artillery bases, one with a cavalry unit. In addition there was a reserve cavalry corps with one unit of cuirassiers and one of dragoons, both classed as veteran (all other French were trained) and the cuirassiers classed as aggressive. The objective was to take the town in five moves.

The Prussians took a bit of a battering but held out pretty well. The town changed hands several times. I was a bit worried that French cavalry superiority would dominate, and indeed gave the Prussians their second cavalry unit at the last minute in order balance things better. But the cuirassiers performed poorly, in spite of having a +2 advantage on close combat. The Prussian artillery kept stopping them, and they threw badly in combat. The extra Prussian cavalry unit, on the other flank, contributed very little except as an artillery target.

The main rule feature on trial were rules on town combat. Each town block can only be occupied by a single infantry unit (and only attackable by one infantry unit at a time), and any loss on close combat would result in the attacker capturing it. The town provided good cover against fire, but only -1 in close combat. Though some details need to be tweaked, this worked very well. It changed hands on most attacks, with the attackers only to be turned out by an immediate counterattack. This is pretty realistic – historically this would only be complicated by the presence of a strongpoint. But rules to cater for such things would not be simple, and I am leaving it until later.

I have still have questions over the treatment of elite formations. The +2 for the cuirassiers looked a bit rich. That isn’t a problem with the rules as much as one of scenario design. In fact the indifferent performance of that unit showed that I may be worrying too much.

Which leads to the observation that there’s no getting away from the fact that these rules are very dice-heavy, even though they don’t take the fistful of dice approach (you never throw more than two at a time). The same scenario is likely to play very differently if repeated. Personally I don’t mind this: historians are too quick to suggest that historical outcomes are inevitable. Surprising events often happened. But tastes vary. Some of my colleagues loved it when their cunning plan failed because they threw a double one; others were frustrated when a blast on canister fire completely failed to register.

The game went so well that my friends asked for another game next week. I can’t ask for a stronger endorsement that that!

A big step towards own-brand Napoleonic rules

At the start. Three Prussian columns converge

Regular followers will know that I have been trying to develop my own rules for Napoleonic army-level games, and that meanwhile I have using “house rules” to adapt Bloody Big Battles (BBB) to the Napoleonic era. These two ideas have taken a big step towards convergence when we played a game using a draft version of new rules which are a rewrite of the BBB house rules, with further modifications, and are free-standing. The umbilical cord with BBB has been cut.

This follows a change in my thinking on the project. I have quietly been drafting more radical Napoleonic rules in parallel with the BBB house rules, though the two sets overlap. A couple of excellent articles in October’s Miniature Wargames have forced on me some home truths about wargames rules. First was by Conrad Kinch on the features of successful rules systems. This told me what I really knew already, that any rules I develop will attract no more than a few hobbyists of a certain age. To develop them into something more mainstream I would have to team up with people who have the time and inclination to create a more complete offer. Still it has got me thinking about how you might create a successful army-level Napoleonic game. One point made by Conrad is the strong link to successful rules and the miniatures. I use 15mm (or 18mm in fact) for a number of reasons, not least is that I already own hundreds of them. Nowadays, though, the big fashion is for 28mm. This really won’t do for army-level games without a massive table. In fact even 15mm is too big. A system based on 6mm or 10mm would look better, especially if a range of terrain aids, like battle mats and so on, could be developed to give the games a really good look without having to invest enormous amounts of time and money.

Very interesting, but the second article was more directly relevant to my project: Core Mechanics in Game Design, by Joseph A McCollough, who wrote fantasy rules Frostgrave, amongst many others. His theme is that rules should focus innovation onto one or at most two core mechanisms, which dictate the flavour of the game, while leaving the rest to be generic. There is much wisdom in this. Having started to play at the club (South London Warlords) I have learnt much about developing rules systems that get buy-in from other gamers. Too much innovation creates bafflement and confusion; a more moderate amount generates interest and intrigue. There is another point which Joseph doesn’t make. The more innovation, the bigger the tendency for bugs and unforeseen problems, which can either lead to major delays, or to systems that don’t work (I can think of at least one of those…).

The core mechanism for BBB is the Movement Throw, as it is for the Fire and Fury system it is based on. This is where players’ decisions are mainly focused. Each player picks a unit takes the Movement Throw, which dictates how far the unit can move, and whether it rallies from disruption. The rest of the system has its quirks but is pretty generic and doesn’t need to involve players in much decision making. In my parallel rules project I have a number of innovative ideas, but there is a clear core mechanism, which is based on orders and activation. What I need to do is to keep the rest of the rules simple and generic.

Which brings me to my development of BBB. I am calling this Big Napoleonic Battles (BNB) for now. This retains the BBB core mechanism, but refines the generic mechanisms around it. Generally speaking these mechanisms are simpler (and even more generic) than BBB (a lot of which is down to the simpler technology of the era being represented). The exception is cavalry, which needs a new set of outcomes and modifiers for combats between it and infantry, and where squares are incorporated. What I hope to achieve down the road is a merger between these generic mechanisms and my new core mechanism.

The development of BNB has been interesting. Rewriting the rules has offered the opportunity to tidy up a lot minor aspects. Compared to our previous house rules, the main changes are the dropping of skirmishers, as discussed in my last post, and a new movement system, based loosely on Sam Mustafa’s Blucher. I also changed the Zone of Control rules a bit (what happens when opposing units get close to each other). I had to finish them in a hurry, so they are untidy with lots of typos, etc. For that reason I’m not publishing just yet.

The game? It was for five players. I gave each a corps (two French and three Prussian) consisting of two infantry units and two batteries, and for four of them a cavalry unit; the fifth, the central Prussian unit, had two large infantry units instead. The idea was that the Prussians were converging on the French and had to capture a river crossing and the crossroads behind it in 6 turns, before French reinforcements would arrive (not part of the game). The forces were based loosely those at Ligny in 1815, but the scenario came out of the air. It went pretty well. The six moves were completed before 10pm, which was what was required. At long last I found that the players were able to do much of their gaming without me (as games master) needing to explain it. Doubtless a few details were missed, but the flow was a bit quicker. The size of the player commands was right for the length of game – though larger commands could be attempted with fewer players. The Prussians were able to storm the river crossing at Turn 5, and the French position in the centre was close to collapse (though it was better to their right), but the crossroads was not under serious threat. The Prussian players said they didn’t realise that it was part of the objective. Nevertheless I thought the main problem was that they didn’t press hard enough and got too distracted by the French cavalry.

Two main aspects of the rules need fixing. When it came the Prussian storming of the bridge was a bit too easy. It wasn’t quite as unbelievable as the French player suggested, as there had been quite a bit of preparatory shooting, and no doubt the French garrison was feeling ground down. Also the movement rules didn’t quite work for half moves in the “Manoeuvre” category for more complex moves. Another complaint was an old one, that firing too often drew a blank. In principle that could be dealt with evening out the fire results (so making it less devastating for high throws) – something it might be worth experimenting with. But overall I was very pleased with this first outing.

Finally some thoughts on the appearance. I am trying to think of ways to make the game look better, even on a club night. The game was set up with standard club equipment: the map, the roads and the river. I supplied the bridges (10mm TimeCast) and buildings (6mm Total Battle Miniatures). The biggest issue is the mat (from Tiny), partly because it represents prairie rather than European fields, and also because it is thin and shiny. I’m not a fan of the trees either – these are standard wargames items, and very robust (so very suitable for club stock), but based on the shape of single trees out in the open. They work a lot less well for woods, even when grouped at the edge, as I tried to do. I did not even attempt hills – increasingly looking to use proxies to achieve a similar effect. I think the next step is to look for a felt mat that achieves a nice generic field pattern.

At end. Th French have stormed the bridge.